Why Netflix Won “Only” Two Oscars at the 2020 Academy Awards
As the 92nd Academy Awards came to a close, journalists were already writing their “Netflix got shut out this year” stories. Even though Netflix landed 24 Oscar nominees in 2020 (the most of any studio), streaming companies were not the story of the 92nd Academy Awards, as Netflix took home “only” two Oscars.
But you really didn’t think Netflix would clean up at 2020 Oscars, did you? Netflix-produced movies were up against extraordinary competition, and Netflix did not make the kinds of films that Oscars love. No one was predicting Netflix to have a big night, anyway.
Twenty four nominations is an impressive achievement in and of itself — and a sign of change coming.
Streaming Companies versus Hollywood
The 2020 Oscars took place amid a war waging between Hollywood and streaming companies, especially Netflix. The streaming businesses have steadily poached talent (both executives and storytellers) from Hollywood over the years. For example:
- Tamara Hunter, formerly with Sony, became head of casting for Apple, and streaming companies have poached major names from many other studios (film and television).
- Alfonso Cuarón made Roma with Netflix. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was financed by Netflix. Viola Davis and Forest Whitaker signed production deals with Amazon Studios in recent years — just to name a few examples.
As The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019, Netflix alone has been so successful at attracting talent that the company is changing how Hollywood studios compensate talent.
Neither Hollywood nor streaming businesses has an exclusive lock on talent. That said, Martin Scorsese’s widely reported diatribe against Marvel movies only hints at the resentment that artists aligned with streaming companies feel about the way they’ve been treated by Hollywood studios. Hollywood, in turn, resents the way streaming businesses have developed movies with a streaming-first mentality, largely bypassing movie theaters and then expecting to have their films treated with the same respect and consideration accorded to films produced the traditional way.
Streaming Companies Gains Ground
Streaming companies have gained ground when it comes to gaining artistic legitimacy, as evidenced by Netflix’s most prominent noms, which included The Irishman (with 10), Marriage Story (six), and The Two Popes (three). The Irishman and Marriage Story were nominated for Best Picture. But being nominated and winning are not the same. In 2020, Netflix secured several Golden Globes nominations but was largely shut out. And film pundits predicted Netflix would bring home few Oscars, too. They were right for the most part. Here’s why:
1 Netflix Faced Stiff Competition
Netflix-produced nominees were up against an extraordinary field of films. Parasite (distributed by Neon), the first movie ever to win Best Picture and International Feature, is the highest rated feature film of all time on popular film review site Letterboxd (rated even higher than The Godfather). Oscar spread the wealth generously this year to many other films from nonstreaming studios, including 1917 (Universal/Amblin) Ford v Ferari (20th Century Fox) and Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood (Sony), all of which represented highwater marks critically as well as the types of films Oscar likes to reward (a sweeping drama, a film about an underdog, and a film about Hollywood). Ironically, Netflix might have opened the door for Parasite to win Best Picture this year when Netflix-produced Roma knocked on the door of Best Picture in 2019 (even though it did not win).
2 Netflix Did Not Make Movies That Oscar Loves
On the other hand, Netflix’s offerings, while impressive, were not easy for the Academy to fall in love with. For example, The Irishman is long (well over three hours) and bleak (gangsters face the ravages of aging). One wonders how many members of the Academy saw The Irishman all the way through. Marriage Story is also downbeat, telling the tale of a crumbling marriage (as one Academy voter said anonymously, “ . . . it’s getting harder and harder for me to care about entitled people’s marital relationships”). The very attributes that made the films personal works for their directors likely turned off Academy voters.
Even still, Netflix had reasons to celebrate, most notably for being responsible for two films that resulted in women winning their first Oscars. Laura Dern won Best Supporting Actress for Marriage Story. And documentarian Julia Reichert (who has been called a godmother of the American independent film movement) won an Oscar for the first time in her 50-year career when American Factory won Documentary Feature (the second time in history Netflix has won for Documentary Feature).
3 Hollywood Wanted to Put Netflix in Its Place
The identifies of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters is a secret, but they’re widely perceived to represent the Hollywood establishment even though the Academy has made changes over the past few years in an attempt to be more progressive and diverse. But it’s fair to assume the Academy is decidedly anti-Netflix. As Brooks Barnes and Nicole Sperling of The New York Times wrote, “The academy’s old guard has resisted a dogged push by Netflix to join the best picture club, arguing that, since the streaming service does not release its films in a traditional theatrical manner, its offerings should be better considered by Emmy voters. (Helen Mirren, onstage at the most recent National Association of Theater Owners convention, used an expletive to refer to the company.)”
Change Is Coming
Of course, tastes are subjective. But it’s only a matter of time before New Hollywood streaming companies win Best Picture awards regularly. That’s because the Academy voters will eventually be composed of people who have grown up doing business with streaming companies. Meanwhile, the power holders of Old Hollywood will eventually pass away. As they do, they’ll take to the grave their animosity toward streaming companies. As a result, at future Academy Awards, the question won’t be, “Can Netflix upstage the establishment?” but “Who is going to beat Netflix this year?”